Cowboy Gospel

We visit a real cowboy church in a Tennessee sale barn and come away believing: This ain’t old-time religion.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

Nathan Duncan, pastor of Thousand Hills Cowboy Church

Nathan Duncan, pastor of Thousand Hills Cowboy Church

Travelers get a taste of cowboy church in tourist meccas like Branson and Nashville. Both towns have well-attended cowboy services. In Branson, you can see a revue of Eagles tunes at the God and Country Theater on Saturday night and attend church there the next day, right next to the Applebee’s. In Nashville, you can walk from your suite at the Opryland Hotel to the Texas Troubadour Theater, where you might see a rhinestoned Stella Parton on stage at the cowboy church service at 10:30 Sunday morning. These dandy venues have comfy theater seats, packed with parishioners-in-passing that fill the air-conditioned space with the clean smells of hotel soap and hair spray.

Then there are the cowboy churches like Thousand Hills Cowboy Church in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. They hang their Stetsons on authenticity. Here in the Lawrence County sale barn, at 7 o’clock on an August Sunday that will be brutal-hot by church time, the air conditioning can’t quite cool the stale air, or mask the trod-earth-and-manure smell. No matter. Pastor Nathan Duncan is ready.

Duncan grew up on a row-crop farm in Florida, and his family moved to Tennessee when he was a teenager. Even though a good many family members were in ministry, he remembers telling his granny, “I’ll never be a preacher. She said, ‘Never say never, boy.’ She was right.” By age 22, Duncan was in youth ministry, but he was still a farm kid. “I’ve always loved the Western heritage. I’ve always loved to fool with cattle and horses. That’s who I am,” he says.

Cattle and clergy finally crossed in his mind in 2008 when he met a representative from the Tennessee Baptist Convention. “He was speaking at the church where I was on staff part-time as youth minister,” says Duncan. “He was talking about planting new churches. Now, I always believed the Lord was going to use me in a church plant at some point, but I thought it would be a different kind of church. A trendy-type church, for 20-somethings,” he says. Instead, the idea for Thousand Hills Cowboy Church was born. Now, 150 members meet every week in the Lawrence County Stockyards sale barn.

For Duncan, it was a natural progression. He spends his weeks working for Performance Feeds in Lawrenceburg. “I talk about cows and feed six days a week,” he says.

And on the seventh day … well, that’s a God thing.

MORE: Click the play button below to hear Nate Duncan talk about Thousand Hills:

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Duncan looks like he might be dressed for his full-time gig at Performance Feeds: button-up shirt, jeans, boots, and the requisite hat. Today, though, he’s Pastor Nate, in the auction ring, its floor scraped clean. There’s a guitar slung around his neck. He stands at a podium he made himself, “with the wood from a tore-down barn,” he says. He’s practicing “River Of Life” for the service, a song you might hear in any church on any Sunday morning. At Thousand Hills, though, it has a country two-beat. John and Marcia’s son Ian is here, too. He plays a mean bass, thumping between the 1-chord and the 5-chord. Even though the drummer hasn’t shown up yet, the feel is unmistakable. The band sounds like Saturday night, but the message is all Sunday morning.

That’s the cowboy church way, or at least it is these days. The church has its roots both in the Wild West culture and the brush arbor revivals of the mid-twentieth century. While any campfire-and-chorus meeting might be called “cowboy church,” the last 15 years have brought method and organization to the movement. The modern cowboy congregation draws on the marketing savvy of the mega-churches and the take-it-to-the-streets immediacy of traveling evangelists.

The mega-church explosion began in the suburbs of Chicago in the late 1970s with Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Community Church. That model has since spawned huge congregations in bedroom communities across the nation, led by internationally renowned celebrity pastors like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. The connecting thread between mega-churches and cowboy churches is targeted messaging. These people know their audiences.

Much like Hybels helped form the mega-church model, Ron Nolen helped shape the modern cowboy church. Naturally, he’s a Texan, and his first endeavor was the Cowboy Church of Ellis County in Waxahachie, a suburb of Dallas. Even that move seems calculated. Waxahachie has an almost mythic quality in cowboy culture. Films like “Tender Mercies” and “Places In The Heart” were filmed there, as was the iconic Chuck Norris television show “Walker, Texas Ranger.” The first meeting at the church a decade ago drew 300-plus. Today, more than 2,200 attend Sunday services. Nolen doesn’t pastor the church anymore, but he is Executive Director of the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches and the Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, both based at the same address in Waxahachie. Both organizations also refer to the Baptist General Convention of Texas, itself a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, as a “saddle partner.”

Nolen adopted the come-as-you-are approach of the mega-churches, but invited his congregation to wear their cowboy hats and overalls. Trappings like crosses made of horseshoes, countrified hymns and worship choruses, and simple, folksy sermons are staples of the model. Pastor Nate at Thousand Hills calls the approach “indigenous, meeting people where they are.”

That includes meeting in the stockyard or the sale barn. That idea was adopted from another cowboy church pioneer, David Simmons. He now pastors the Silverado Cowboy Church in Weatherford, Texas, but he was holding meetings in sale barns five years before Ron Nolen started the Ellis County church.

Simmons says he always felt the call to full-time ministry, even when he was a well-paid manager at the 26,000-acre San Felipe Ranch. The idea for cowboy ministry began as “church in the grandstands,” Simmons says, that rode the coattails of other events. His first church in Cottonwood, Calif., started just that way in 1995. “I saw these guys coming in on Thursday nights and dropping off cattle for the auction on Fridays,” he says. “So we’d have church on Thursday night, before the big sale.”

Simmons left ranching and he and his wife Kathleen hit the road, planting cowboy churches in sale barns across the Southwest. In 15 years, Simmons has started 12 churches. He and Kathleen have settled in and set up headquarters in Weatherford, but the road was home in the early days of their ministry. “We traveled from one barn to another, all through the week,” he says. Then they’d hold church at a big rodeo event on the weekend. “I had worked cattle, so I knew all the big promoters. I built relationships with them, so they’d let me have church on Sunday mornings after the big show.”

Hundreds attend his cowboy church in Weatherford, some driving from as far as 100 miles away. But Simmons still takes the church to the cowboy now and again. This year, Simmons did a church service at the bull and bucking-horse sale in Las Vegas during the National Rodeo Finals.

The trappings of cowboy life are integrated into traditional doctrine.

The trappings of cowboy life are integrated into traditional doctrine.

Taking the church to the cowboy still works. Pastor Nate expects the stands at the sale barn to be filled for the Thousand Hills service this morning, especially since a dinner and a baptism will follow.

As he wraps up band rehearsal, the candidates for baptism arrive for counseling. Nate sits them down on the front row of the stands, and paces the auction ring as he explains what baptism means. “You’re buried with Christ,” Nate tells the candidates, “and raised in the newness of life.”

It will sound familiar to anyone with a Baptist background. Doctrinally, Thousand Hills is a Southern Baptist church. Nate says his church is affiliated both with Ron Nolen’s organization, a Baptist entity, and the Cowboy Church Network of North America, an offshoot of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board. Jeff Smith, the “cowboy missionary” who runs the Network, says its goal is to place a cowboy church in every county. It’s clear the Southern Baptist Convention sees the cowboy culture as a mission field, and Smith is the Baptist’s most direct connection to the movement. He unabashedly plugs the Cooperative Program, the funding source for Baptist missions. Churches in the Network are expected to contribute to the Cooperative Program, and many receive funding from the Program as mission entities. Churches in the Network also adhere to the Baptist Faith and Message, the cornerstone document of the denomination.

Full-immersion baptism is a tenant of the Baptist faith, and of cowboy churches like Thousand Hills and others in the Cowboy Church Network. But like the church’s music and setting, there’s a cowboy spin to baptism, too. Jeff Smith describes it:

MORE: Click the play button below to hear Jeff Smith describe a cowboy church baptism:

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Smith bristles at the suggestion this might be all for show, just a Baptist church with a barn wood façade. “People think that when we do something that ain’t the old way, it’s ungodly,” he says. “But we ain’t just playin’ church.”

The Thousand Hills "brand."

The Thousand Hills “brand.”

As Pastor Nate wraps up the counseling session, he drives that point home with the baptism candidates. “Your life has to change,” he tells them. “After today, nothing will be the same again.”

Outside, the congregants are beginning to arrive. Ordinarily, they’d be greeted on horseback, the cowboy church version of an usher. Not today, though. “Too hot,” says Nate, who grips and grins with the brethren over coffee. Some of them wear Thousand Hills t-shirts, which sport a “TH” logo inside a circle, like a cattle brand. Pastor Nate doodled the brand on a napkin when he was trying to come up with a name for the church. “It stands for Thousand Hills,” he says, “and ‘Trust Him.’”

He quotes the verse, Psalm 50:10, that gave the church its name as he wires up with a microphone before entering the ring for the service. “Every beast in the forest is mine,” the verse goes, “and the cattle on a thousand hills.”

“Ain’t that perfect?” Nate says. “God owns it all. It’s all his. A church named for the attribute of God having all things. That’s us.” Sounds like a sermon, and it probably could be, but Pastor Nate is just getting warmed up. When he preaches, he’ll use the same straightforward approach that serves him well with his feed customers during the week. Just like Ron Nolen, David Simmons and Jeff Smith, Pastor Nate knows his audience. “They’re honest, no-nonsense, they know what a hard day’s work is,” he says. “So when I preach, I’m a transparent guy. If I got something going on with me, I’ll say it. It’ll be honest. It’ll be simple,” he says. Then adds: “We will use PowerPoint, though.”

And with that, it’s time to have church.

The worship time opens with “I’ll Fly Away,” a nod to tradition, and then moves into contemporary verse, always with the country backbeat. Pastor Nate strums and sings. There’s a bit of new-school Nashville in his delivery, and in his appearance, with the ever-present cowboy hat and the microphone that hooks on his ear and loops around to his mouth. It’s the same kind of mic Garth Brooks used to wear in concert.

The sermon is simple, as advertised. And it’s honest. Painfully so.

In the midst of a talk about waiting on God’s promises, Pastor Nate reveals that he and his wife Ann were told they couldn’t have children. After months of treatments and procedures, she finally conceived. Nate believed God’s promise was being revealed. “But the day after we told our families that we were finally having a baby, I was in the doctor’s office with Ann.” His head drops, his voice quivers. “The child was gone.”

Nate continues:

MORE: Click the play button below to hear Pastor Nate talk about waiting on God:

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Nate and Ann decided to adopt. That they had the fortitude and the funds to go through the adoption process after the loss of a biological pregnancy is a miracle itself. Now their 7-year-old son from the Ukraine sits to Nate’s right, on the front row. Ann’s arm is slung around him. He has assimilated just fine. Naturally, he is wearing a cowboy hat. His belt buckle is as wide as his waist. When he sings the songs his daddy plays on the guitar during worship, his Southern accent is as thick as the Tennessee humidity.

His name is Canaan. For the land that was promised.

After Canaan came three more boys—Isaac, Eli, Noah—all biological. “Every time I look at them, I see God’s promise,” Nate says. “It was all in the waiting.”

Pastor Nate ends with a prayer, but breaks the Baptist tradition of a song and an invitation to the altar for the congregation. There is no altar, unless you count Pastor Nate’s handmade podium, or the horseshoe cross. And this is another idea culled from the mega-church model. There is no pressure for conversion. “If the Holy Spirit moves, He moves,” says Nate. “We don’t need an invitation.”

He does close, though, with an invitation to “join us at the trough.” The fellowship dinner is still to come, along with the baptism.

Pastor Nate delivers the message.

Pastor Nate delivers the message.

The Lawrence County Stockyards are on the north side of Lawrenceburg. On the way here, Thousand Hills congregants will pass as many as a dozen churches. “This is Tennessee,” says one member. “Anywhere two roads cross, you can count on two things. A gas station on one corner, and a church on the other.” Cowboy churches, at least the vast majority of the organized ones, aren’t campfire meetings on a hillside in the middle of nowhere. People who attend cowboy churches have many choices for worship.

“I’ve never been in a town that didn’t have two or three churches,” says David Simmons, “including the ones where we’ve planted cowboy churches.”

So what’s the draw?

“Eighty percent of the people in there have no church background whatsoever. They don’t care nothing at all about going to a church,” says Pastor Nate, standing on the porch of a church member’s just-opened country restaurant, where congregants eat a buffet lunch after the service. “We’re a church for people that don’t go to church.” When Nate first founded Thousand Hills, he talked with pastors at other churches in Lawrenceburg. “I told them, we’re not here to get your people. They’re not coming to your church anyway.” True to that word, four of the five new members who will be baptized today weren’t in church at all before they came to Thousand Hills.

“Other churches, when they try to reach people, it’s ‘Ready, fire, aim,’” says Nate. Not with Thousand Hills. Almost everyone is a farmer, rancher, horse owner or trail rider. So pretty much everything about cowboy church fits these folks like a broken-in boot.

Folks like John and Marcia Mikolajczyk, for instance. John spent 25 years in the Marine Corps, but he was still a cowboy at heart. As soon as he left the Corps, he and Marcia hot-footed it away from the tiny military base homes, with their stodgy-same khaki exteriors and lawns measured in square feet, and bought themselves a farm in the heart of Walking Horse country here in middle Tennessee. He’s in the market for two tractors, “a brand new one that will last me for the rest of my life,” he says, and an antique Oliver, “just to have one.” For the couple who met in kindergarten and spent childhood in wicked Michigan winters, where they both put up hay for small dairies, their acres outside of Lawrenceburg are a slice of heaven on earth.

Besides running cattle and keeping horses at his farm, John weighs livestock in the stuffy little box behind the auction ring at the Stockyards. That’s where he first heard Pastor Nate talk about Thousand Hills.

MORE: Click the play button below to hear John and Marcia talk about joining Thousand Hills:

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Something about church in a sale barn lit a spark in the soul. “I said to myself, ‘I’ll be there the first Sunday,” says John. Fitting in wasn’t an issue.

That’s not an accident, and it’s no stretch to call the cowboy church a laboratory of sorts for marketing the Gospel. The cowboy church isn’t old-time religion, in spite of the patina. It’s calculated, canny and—judging by its cracking success—just the beginning. Cowboy missionary Jeff Smith has a vision of fashioning church services for other target markets like golfers, paintballers, even NASCAR fans. A marketing strategist might see in the cowboy church a viable messaging model with an interchangeable theme. Pastor Nate compares it to the Apostle Paul’s Scriptural vow to become all things to all people, in order to win some. “That’s it. That’s the idea,” says Nate. “We have to be clever about it, but the underlying message never changes.”

Lips still smacking from the fried-chicken dinner, it’s time for baptism. The flatbed trailer with the horse trough is parked in the gravel lot of the restaurant. The shaded front porch fills up, and the congregants overflow into the ferocious noontime heat. As Pastor Nate and the church elders take their places alongside the horse trough, someone asks, “How’s the water?” and jokes that the preacher might have a few more takers for baptism if the trough is cool. Among those taking the plunge are a husband and wife, and a mom and daughter. After the baptism, the young couple stands over the trough, dripping, holding hands, overcome. Mom hugs daughter in a towel. A half hour later, still wet from their baptism, they invite another church family to an afternoon trail ride. “When it cools off a little,” Mom says. Meanwhile, the kids from the church have taken over the trough—splashing, playing, laughing.

As the day winds down, Pastor Nate makes an announcement. It seems Thousand Hills Cowboy Church won’t be meeting at the sale barn much longer. Nate points to the north. “Right up there, right out on Brewer Road, the church has made an offer on 22 acres of land,” he says. It’s somehow appropriate that the announcement comes now, with the church’s 2-year anniversary just a few weeks away. There are tears, shouted prayers, but no mention of pews and pulpits. The new place will be theirs, “a precious gift from God,” says one elder in a prayer, but it won’t be so different from the Stockyards.

“We’ll build a barn,” Pastor Nate says. “Simple. We’ll just build a barn.”